All brains are not created equal. We accept that our bodies – from the neck down – are different and have limitations because of those differences. But we seem to have a problem understanding that our brains are different and limited, too.
We do not expect Danny Devito to play basketball as well as Jeremy Lin because Danny is vertically challenged. No matter how many spin classes you go to, you body will never be as perfectly proportioned for riding a bicycle as Lance Armstrong. We do not consider Gweneth Paltrow an inferior human being because she can’t sing like Aretha Franklin. And all the Hail Mary’s in the Vatican ain’t ever going to get me into the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Not gonna happen.
We accept the physical limitations of our bodies because we can see that they are built differently. Maybe it’s our DNA or maybe we didn’t get the foods we needed to support healthy muscle and bone growth when we were kids.
But when it comes to the brain, we seem to have this notion that everyone’s brain is the same. We look down on people who don’t have our mental aptitude and acuity. We attribute it to a lack of discipline and drive. They need to take some responsibility – think things through before they do something stupid, again. I mean, seriously, what did they think was going to happen when they _______________ (fill in the blank with some contemptible behavior). Why can’t she stop drinking? Why can’t he keep a job? What a loser.
I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately because it is an election year and we’re hearing all kinds of tough talk from candidates about government handouts and entitlement programs and rooting out fraud and cleaning up government and blah, blah, blah…
Yes, there are a lot of people gaming the system, getting benefits they do not deserve or are not entitled to. But there are many, many, many more people who are not as lucky to have healthy functioning brains that enable them to support themselves. No matter how much training or discipline or love they get, their brains may never achieve the same level of functioning as healthy brains.
Medications, a healthy lifestyle, stable living conditions, sobriety and therapy may help. But just as Danny Devito cannot grow another 3 feet, neither can the brains of people with disabling mental illnesses repair themselves completely.
Problem is, you can’t see my bipolar, alcoholic brain and how it reacts differently to drugs and alcohol than the brain of a non-alcoholic/addict. You can’t see how my amygdala reacts when I drink. You cannot see how the synapses in the brain of a person with depression aren’t playing nice together. Because we cannot see these things, we just assume the person is stupid, slow, mean and a smorgasbord of other negative behaviors that prevent that person from supporting herself.
This is where neuroimaging comes in. If you could see what I have seen, you would have no doubt that our brains are not created equal. Once you see the technicolor image of a healthy brain beside the brain of a person with depression or post-traumatic, obsessive-compulsive or attention deficit disorder you will have no doubt. I recently attended a presentation by Dr. Randy Buckner, the Director of Psychiatric Neuroimaging at Massachusetts General Hospital. When he was asked why neuroimaging is so important, I expected him to begin speaking in some incomprehensible medical dialect that I would not understand. But his answer was simple. To get rid of stigma.
When there are finally tests to confirm disorders – when the doubters see what I have seen – stigma will finally begin to fade. I think we are very close.
Which brings me back to this election season. We need candidates who have the guts to continue funding for neuroimaging research – not only to eliminate the stigma but to catch the cheaters. Proving mental illnesses are real will save not only save lives but also tax-dollars. Imagine the customized care we could provide our soldiers and Marines coming home from war if we could see their post-traumatic stress.
Imagine a criminal justice and prison system based on sound science. Imagine how different the lives of bipolar teens would be if we could see what was going on in their brains.
Now, imagine a candidate who understands this – who gets it. And then let me know who that is. Please.
Bicyclist photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 11 Apr 2012